The full moon in July (Sunday, July 5th) is Dharma Day, one of Theravada Buddhism’s most important festivals because it marks Buddah’s first sermon, when he gave five of his closest followers the doctrine that had come to him following enlightenment. This sermon was known as, “setting into motion the wheel of dhamma,” and it encapsulated the four noble truths. You will often see Buddha pictured with deer while he gives his teachings, because this sermon took place in the Deer Park at Sarnath.
The Four Noble Truths
- There is suffering
- Suffering is caused by craving
- There is a state beyond suffering
- The way to nirvana is via the eightfold path
The eightfold path centers around the right way to practice moral conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom in order to reach the end of suffering and the state beyond it.
Today, Dharma day is seen as a chance to express gratitude that the Buddah and other enlightened teachers have shared their knowledge with others. You can celebrate by reading from the Buddhist scriptures and reflecting deeply on their content.
My trip to Ajanta Caves, UNECSO World Heritage Site
On my pilgrimage to India earlier this year, I had the privilege of visiting The Ellora Caves and the Ajanta caves. Both caves had breathtaking architecture dedicated to Buddah; the Ellora Caves had a particularly rich history of Hindu religion, whereas Ajanta was focused solely on Buddhism. So, I’m sharing the Ajanta Caves story in honor of my connection with Buddah.
When I booked this pilgrimage to India, I was traveling alone and, to save a little money, I was going to share a room with someone who would be assigned to me on arrival. Of course I was nervous about sharing a room with a stranger in a foreign country, but I consulted my tarot deck and the reading reassured me that I had nothing to worry about. The deck was right, as always, and I had the best room mate ever! She is a healer, an elder, and a strong amazing woman from Belgium. We got along very well. And, on this day in particular, we split off from the larger group, we hired a driver, and we went off to explore Ajanta Caves all by ourselves. I was not so familiar with it, but my roomie had this on her bucket list for quite some time, and her excitement was contagious.
Stops on the way
On the way to the caves, about a three hour drive on mostly dirt roads, our driver gave us a tour and pointed out different places of worship, different types of farms, and he stopped for chai and a bathroom break. While we sipped our chai, the restaurant owner gave us tips for the best ways to see all the caves had to offer.
Back on the road, we passed by a cotton manufacturing site, and we were able to pull over and explore the scene! Hills of cotton, piled ten feet over my head, dotted the warehouses as far as I could see. It was fluffy, just like a cotton ball that you have a home, but it was damp and dirty, fresh picked from the elements. The employees and their families were all working together, piling the cotton high in big baskets, and putting them on their heads. They were quite heavy! I was laughed off for trying to pick one up by myself. It took three people to lift a basket, and one man to carry it, balanced on his head. We also had good fun flopping down into the piles for a rest.
Thirty Caves of Wonder
Arriving at Ajanta, you have to walk from the parking lot through a tent market and up to a shuttle bus, which drives you to the caves. Our driver was very popular for bringing tourists like us to the site every day. His friends shuffled us to the shuttle stop, and one gave me a piece of quartz, in the hope that I would bring my business to his shop for a souvenir after I was done exploring.
The shuttle climbs up and up, and then you purchase your ticket, and you climb up some more stairs. But, when you get to the top – oh what a site to see! Hand carved, ancient caves are built into the mountain side. Excavated between the 2nd century BCE and 480 CE in Aurangabad, the caves were carved into monasteries, where monks worshiped, studied, lived and worked. We explored every cave, all thirty of them. some of them were closed for maintenance, but my roomie talked us in. The men who worked on the temples were so proud to show us the preservation efforts, and so humble about their sacred work.
There was an educational display showing how the caves were restored. At the end of the 7th century, Buddhism began to decline and many shires fell into desolation and were abandoned. In 1819, the Ajanta site was accidentally discovered by British Army Officers while hunting for a tiger in the valley of Ajanta, named after an ancient village that was nestled nearby. The name Ajanta is actually a mystery. Some think the name was unearthed from a piece of pottery in the village. Others believe that Ajanta ws named after Ajitha, which in Buddhist philosophy, is the name of the future Buddah.
The caves are numbered 1 through 30 from east to west. Thanks to the advice from our new friend, we explored them in backwards order, from west to east so that we avoided long lines. Many tour groups and field trips were there. The children were so curious about us, and asked us many questions about where we lived. Their teacher promised to find our home towns on a map when they got back to the classroom.
I got to lay down where a Buddhist monk would sleep. A small room carved into the rock, with two slabs carved out at about knee height was all that they slept on, two to a room. During the dry months, they would often sleep outside sometimes traveling, but during the monsoon the caves kept them dry.
The carvings and the paintings in these caves were so breathtaking. Photos are never going to do it justice. There were fully preserved motifs across the ceilings and murals on every wall. Gorgeous statues and temples carved into solid rock with the finest details you can imagine. I am not sure if I blinked more than twice the whole day, just trying to take it all in.
In this place I felt so connected to Buddah’s teachings and his spirit. I did pick up a sleeping buddah and some crystals in the market on our way out to remember it by. On the long ride home, we stopped for aloo ghobi, saag paneer, and more chai of course from our new friend. We were sure to thank him for his insight. We had a full day!
Now, back home, during a pandemic, witnessing awful things happening in my country, I’m so blessed to hold this experience in my heart. I will celebrate Dharma day by meditating today, and taking a restful restorative yoga class. I’m planning to visit a local Buddhist Temple for Sunday service.